October 2, 2010

Public worried wireless power meters might cause cancer, other health issues

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Maine's public health director has been asked to look into concerns raised by residents that the "smart" electricity meters being installed by Central Maine Power Co. are a potential health hazard.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills said Friday that she was contacted for advice by Richard Davies, Maine's public advocate, after his office began hearing from customers who are concerned that the meters might cause cancer and other health issues.

CMP has begun a two-year project to replace 620,000 meters with digital devices that will communicate via a two-way, wireless network. The meters will save CMP money and eventually let customers manage their power bills by using electricity when it's less costly to generate.

At least a few customers, however, are worried about the radio-frequency technology the meters will use to send signals.

Over the past few days, state officials have received more than two dozen letters as part of an organized e-mail campaign. They include a note from Elisa Boxer-Cook, an environmental health activist in Scarborough. The note is being circulated on social media networks that are popular among families in the Portland area.

The note from Boxer-Cook says the devices will "blanket entire neighborhoods and homes with strong, cancer-causing wireless radiation."

It says she has heard that the meter network is comparable to having a cell phone tower outside every home, and that people have reported heart palpitations, migraines and other problems where the meters are installed.

Boxer-Cook says in the note that the radiation emitted by the meters is under federal investigation for causing cancer.

In an interview Friday, Boxer-Cook said she isn't against new technology but is aware of an international debate over the meters and their wireless signals.

"Until these meters are proven safe, let's not expose people without their consent," she said. "I would like the program halted until the health effects can be studied."

CMP says it has no plans to stop the program, which has been approved by the Public Utilities Commission.

CMP's smart meters operate as radios that are on the same frequency as cordless phones, WiFi devices and baby monitors, according to Trilliant Inc., the company that makes them. They transmit only minutes a day, at very low power, the company says. Most will be outside homes, and the wireless network is being mounted on poles above the ground.

"These signals are neither strong or cancer-causing -- this is not true," said John Carroll, a CMP spokesman. "It may be true that someone has heard that, but it's an inaccurate description of our system."

However, because CMP recognizes that some customers have concerns, it is asking a consultant to review scientific data on the issue and make the information available to customers, the PUC and the Public Advocate's Office.

"We're making sure we've considered any of the research that's out there," Carroll said.

Smart meters are part of an evolving global smart grid, in which computers instantly match electricity demand with supply from power sources that can include wind and solar energy. Conservation groups generally see the trend as a way to reduce the need for fossil-fuel plants and fight pollution and climate change.

The meters have been criticized by some environmental health and safety advocates, who have formed alliances with residents who are suspicious about the accuracy of the meters or their ability to collect private information.

In Fairfax, Calif., for instance, critics convinced the town council this summer to enact a six-month ban on smart meter installation. A similar ban took effect last month in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Boxer-Cook said she wants CMP to stop its project until the issue can be resolved. Other technologies exist to link the meters, she said, such as wiring them into phone lines.

Another method, used by the Portland Water District in 50,000 meters in its service area, uses a modem to broadcast to vans whose drivers read meters.

That wouldn't work for energy management, Boxer-Cook acknowledged, but she would like customers who aren't interested in that feature to be able to opt out of CMP's program.

In responding to letter writers, Davies, the public advocate, said he has no background to assess public health disputes. He is advising concerned residents to contact the PUC, which has jurisdiction over the program. Under the existing approvals, every home and business will get a new meter.

Mills said she received Davies' inquiry on Thursday, has contacted her staff about the issue and is preparing to personally review research next week. She said she hasn't formed an opinion, but is generally skeptical about health and safety campaigns that are circulated online.

"There's a lot of junk science out there that tends to be virally transmitted through the Internet, and it makes people very upset," she said.

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